Words Away

college-dictionary-resizedAfter 36 years the time had come to chuck my college dictionary into the dumpster. As I tossed the book into the trash receptacle, I wondered if I should play a funeral dirge. I am a writer, so saying goodbye to this old book was like bidding farewell to an old friend.

I had purchased my New World Dictionary, copyright 1979, back in 1982, as near as I can remember. My college professor deemed the dictionary a required text, and grudgingly I bought my copy at the college bookstore for what seemed to me an exorbitant price. Given how much it cost, I thought I’d better use it, and so I did, for his communication theory class, and a class after that, and another, and so on for the duration of my college career and far beyond.

My college dictionary gave me many years of faithful service, helping me consider spelling and meaning throughout college, my years as a newspaper reporter, two years in graduate school, and my writing and editing career. But as time passed, my dictionary’s pages became flimsy and torn, and the tiny type became ever so much harder for my bifocal-ed eyes to read. So I replaced it with a newer version.

I do not take lightly throwing words away, even in a dictionary long past its prime. Although my college dictionary has passed on, I remember it fondly. And I honor the old book’s memory as I use my Webster’s New Dictionary. Sporting larger print, brighter paper, and more white space, it will work just fine. Perhaps I’ll even get another 36 years before it’s dumpster time again.

Laura Sternweis


Dear Kathy

Laura-Kathy-1968“To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven.” I know this as much from Pete Seeger and the Byrds as I do from Ecclesiastes 3. But from either source I find it meaningful. Both the song and the biblical chapter note that there is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to mourn and a time to dance. I mourned a year ago.

On May 25, 2014, I was able to spend one last afternoon with my oldest sister, Kathy, before she died, to share memories and stories and take notes as she told me what to include in her obituary. She had asked me to write it, and I was honored to oblige. She always had liked when I would write to her. So I guess it was appropriate that as her life was ending I would write for her.

Kathy left home for college just as I was beginning second grade. I was 7 and she was 17. I knew how to read and write, so it wasn’t long before I got out my #2 pencil and my writing tablet and began my first letter. I opened with “Dear Kathy,” and closed “With Love and Prayers,” as the nuns had taught me at Catholic school. In between I filled both sides of my wide-ruled paper with a “How are you?” and simple statements about home and school. And she wrote back to me.

Getting mail is a big deal to a little kid, so I continued to write to my big sister and she continued to write back. 1969 to 2014 is a long time, and there were gaps in our letter writing over the years. But we stuck with it, picking up the pace over the last decade or so.

We wrote about our husbands and our kids, her life back in Wisconsin and mine here in Iowa. We wrote about books we’d read and movies we’d seen. We wrote our way through the deaths of our parents and her six-year struggle with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. And on our last day together, we laughed and cried and remembered our years as big and little sister.

Kathy died on June 5 and was buried on June 10, 2014. She was laid to rest in a secluded corner of a small town cemetery.

There are no more letters, of course. Instead I write in this blog and I imagine her reply. So in that regard, I’m still sharing stories with my dear Kathy.

Laura Sternweis

On Alice, Science, and Becoming a Writer

ArloI first visited “Alice’s Restaurant” in 1979 during science camp. (For the musically unchurched, “Alice’s Restaurant” is the signature song of Arlo Guthrie.) I was a 17-year-old geek participating in a National Science Foundation summer program at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

The song was about Alice, and science camp was about chemistry, physics, and computer programming related to energy. There were 28 of us science campers and from the beginning, I felt out of place. The other kids just seemed to enjoy science so much more than I did.

But we all liked “Alice’s Restaurant.” One of the kids had brought along a cassette of Arlo’s best and it became the soundtrack of our summer of learning. During our free time we would gather in the front lobby lounge of our dormitory. It was our hangout because the summer college students never set foot there. We’d listen to Arlo and contemplate our future.

“You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant,” Arlo sang. That sounded good to a bunch of high school kids who were just trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives.

One requirement of our summer science experience was to complete an energy related project, either an experiment or a research report. Not being very experimental, I opted for the report. I spent much of that summer in the government documents collection of the university library gathering data and writing about energy use in U.S. agriculture. During the course of those six National Science Foundation weeks, I came to understand that although I liked science, what I really enjoyed was writing the report. I realized then that I could write for a living.

Just as “Alice’s Restaurant” wasn’t really about a restaurant, for me, science camp wasn’t really about science. It was about discovering who I wanted to become.

Laura Sternweis

P.S. Watch this video of Arlo Guthrie singing “Alice’s Restaurant.” He’s currently on tour — the Alice’s Restaurant 50th Tour. If you’re lucky, maybe he’ll bring Alice to your town.